Existentialism For Beginners
Chapter 1 - The Flight From Freedom
by Ian R Thorpe.
CREATIVE COMMONS: Attribute, non commercial, no derivs.
KEYWORDS: science, religion, faith, belief, existentialism, existential, philosophy, religion, belief system, christian, atheist, buddhist, muslim, jewish, moral, responsibility, certainty, prayer, ritual, superstition, healing, placebo, uncertainty, risk
It may sound strange to talk of fleeing from freedom after all people usually flee from tyranny or oppression or from physical danger. It takes some effort to understand the idea of fleeing as avoiding responsibility. Even this wording can be misleading but if we think of freedom and responsibility as two sides of the same coin we can see why humans might want to run away from that. Usually when people speak of avoiding responsibility they mean dodging blame; they want to evade the unpleasant consequences of having messed something up.
There is however a deeper sense in which were all fundamentally responsible for our own decisions regardless of whether they are good or bad, whether we wish to accept the responsibility or not. Influencing one's own outcomes is a form of responsibility nobody can possibly avoid without sacrificing free will, without in effect becoming a slave or vassal or a medieval master, a totalitarian state or a powerful corporation. As long as a person retains the ability to make decisions the responsibility for that consequences of that decision are entirely their own.
Decisions though are seldom as straightforwards as they seem. Even choosing to not make a decision but to leave your fate to chance, divine providence or external influences such as the government is in itself a decision. OK, when things go pear shaped people can blame bad luck, an angry god or stupid politicians but they will still be haunted by the feeling that had they decided to plot their own course events might have turned out better for them. Rock band Rush put it simply when they said If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. French writer and existentialist philosopher Jean - Paul Sartre was making much the same point when he famously wrote, Men are condemned to be free.
Political liberty, in the sense of being able to freely act on your own decisions, is something we all crave. Moral liberty however, in the sense of being the one who has to confront decisions every moment of every day, is not such an attractive proposition to many people. Such moral liberty can come to feel like a ball and chain clamped to our ankle.
If we examine the reasons why moral freedom feels like a burden to so many people it becomes apparent that awareness of our own moral failings is something humans are ill at ease with. We all prefer to think of ourselves in our own private narrative as the unblemished hero. Sadly we all fall short of this self-image from time to time because of desicions we make. Did you have to sleep with that pole dancer when you were away on a business tripm Joe? Did you have to max out the credit card on those designer shoes Mary? These two imaginary people made decisions they might later come to regret.
There are times we find ourselves in situations where we face a moral dilemma. Life is full of ambiguity and moral certainties are few and far between. We constantly have to make decisions without having all the facts and ironically one of the decisions we repeatedly have to make is how much time and effort to expend on seeking more information. The apparent difference between moral shortcomings -when we know what is right and fail to do it - and ignorance - when were not sure what is right and what isnt - is actually blurred and constantly shifting.
This hardly scratches the skin of the human compulsion to seek the security amid comfort of the crowd and avoid facing the 'heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to' as Shakespeare put it.
"But I did what everyone else did, I trusted the wisdom of the crowd" is the excuse.
This human urge to seek an illusion of safety in belonging to and being protected by membership of a group even if conforming to the mores manners of that group is restricting and calls for the suppression of one's individuality has been dealt a constand theme for art and literature.
Many novels and films have dealt with the theme of abdicating individuality and free will, from the works of the Maquis de Sade or The Story of O to George Orwell's 1984, Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange and The Stepford Wives. Anyone new to existentialist thinking will perhaps not see the recurring theme of control and subjugation of the individual by a remote and unapproachable authority, the overriding of individual will by unchallengable force.
It is easy to say "Ah yes but these are fiction, stories. Such things do not happen in real life. Nobody would voluntarily surrender their freedom to an external authority. In fact such behaviour, if we look closely is the norm for human behaviour rather than the exception. Have you heard of The Milgram Experiment? It was a psychological experiment to prove that people are so anxious to confom, to please authority that they will commit acts they know are wrong amd morally unjustifiable if ordered to do so. It is only one of many demonstrations showing humans will behave in ways totally out of character rather than stand alone against the group. The wisdom of the crowd or the stupidity of the mob? Or perhaps simply the dread of being different, of being the one who does not conform; the desire to cling to that illusuion of security.
That is, is it not, exactly the role organized religion has played in all civilized of societies? This does not mean religion is either bad or good, simply that it has has always fulflled important social needs, to bind the members of a tribal or national community together through shared values and beliefs, common customs and a sense of connectedness and to offer some refuge from the pressures of moral responsibility.
Victor Franklwho was both a Holocaust survivor and an existentialistonce wrote:
The standard existentialist view is that life is a trial, often one as incomprehensible as that described in Franz Kafka's novel 'The Trial' and some people want to use a belief system as a cheat-sheet. Moral certainties and a promise of forgiveness and resurrection to a better life are very appealing when compared to the silence and emptiness of eternity. Ay there's the rub, even those of us who worship no god, who reject even the certainties of science, cannot quite accept death as our ultimate end. Somewhere in the unexplored depths of the human mind there is a belief that something of us remains after our bodies die and consciousness ends. Perhaps we are simply not equipped to accept our own non being.
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
To repond to the question of what really matters, what gives meaning to our lives by taking full responsibility for one's actions entails a lifetime of commitment and a full embrace of our own moral freedom in the face of uncertainties and contrdictions. It means making no excuses and doing the best you can despite the knowing this will never be enough or knowing of yourself that you chose not to do so and living with that knowledge. It means accepting that the test of life leaves us alone, outside the mainstream.
Where a religion (even the religion of science) provides certainty then this burden is lifted. If you are willing to abdicate your responsibility to a priest, a holy book, a set of rituals or an unproveable theory then you can win the illusion of a free lunch: liberty within the framework of the group without the awful sacrifices associated with individual responsibility. No longer do you have to live a life dedicated to answering the quest for meaning, you can simply point to your religion and say Im not really sure what the answer is, but theyve got it over there and Im with them.
Many have argued against the teching of the creation myth claiming it is 'unscientific.' There is in fact no more hard evidence in support of Big Bang theory than for the creation myths of various religions and cultures. All that can be offered in support of the idea that the universe popped into being out of nothingness because of the laws of physics is theory and mathematical speculation.
"I would rather believe the mathematics than some ancient scripture," Big Bang's supporters will insist, not seeing that their position is no different from that of the creationist. Both have chosen what they believe and are stickng withn it. That is their right of course. Personally, I cannot see what is wrong with the answer "We don't know," to questions like 'How did the universe begin?' and 'Is there any meaning to life?"
This criticism has been made of religion before by atheists, but although I do not like the term 'atheist' to describe my own godlessness atheism doesnt mean an escape from all these questions. Many of the great existentialist philosophers were atheist but many more were not. Really we can only refer to the 'existentialists' as those philosophers whose work was done after the term was coined. This excludes the enlightenment philosophers but any class in existentialism is likely to start with a person who came before long before Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Rene Descartes or others of the enlightenment era. Brauch Spinoza an Amsterdam Jew who was excommunicated by leaders of his community for his heresies is often (though not universally) regarded as the first thinker to suggest something like an existentialist approach to life.
I have taken two phrases from Hamlet's Soliloquy written by Willim Shakespeare who predates Spinoza by several decades. "To be or not to be" is one of the best known phrases in the English language right up alongside 'I'm working late at the office darling,' 'But there is a monster in the cupboard Mum,' or 'Not tonight I have a headache,' but while Hamlet's monologue may be a sublime encapsulation of existential angst, it is unlikely Shakespeare originated the ideas. His inspiration may have come from Francis Bacon a contemporary and one of the first renaissance thinkers to challenge religious orthodoxies who was influenced by the work of the Athenian philosopher Aristotle.
Athenian philosophers beginning from Socrates argued ideas that we would recognise as related to existentialism, that there is no universal truth and we must each find for ourselves an answer to the questions posed by life's uncertainties..
That is not to say that existential thinking is the total opposite of religious philosophy. The militant atheists who proclaim the omnipotence if science may refer to themselves as secular humanists but there is nothing about humanism that demands unquestioning faith in scientific theories of being. Both Jesus and Buddha could be correctly described as humanists. Parallels with existentialismcan be found in Hinduism and Buddhism.
People who would like a Christian take on existentialism need look no further than the ideas of Soren Kirkegaad who was both devoutly Christian and fully aware of the fact that one cannot duck the great questions of life by pretending that religion can answer them on your behalf. Islamic Sufism and Secular Judaeism both take a similar view in opposition to the more fundamentalist strands of those faiths.
Living an existential lifeliving according to Frankls challengeis just as difficult for an non theist as strict adherence to a religious creed is for a religious person. Clearly organized religion cant serve as a source of false comfort anymore. That doesnt mean that there are no surrogates to be found, however, and the replacement religion for most of the seemingly enlightened atheists of the West is the scientific establishment ormore broadlyacademia.
Obviously science and academia are no more intrinsically evil than organized religion, but the parallels between the two are striking. Not only do they often provide the same function by offering an illusion of certainty, both primise and answers to the Big Questions in exchange for our allegiance, but if you trace the beginnings of modern colleges and universities you will find they spring from the monastic schools of the medieval era. These origins go back even further than the Christianisation of the western world, Glastonbury, site of the medieval Cistercian Abbey where King Arthur's grave can be found* and a modern Rock Festival where ageing hippies congregate was once the home of a Druidic learning centre as was the magnificent Mont St. Michel in Western France. Few people ever question people the strange garb students are required to dress in for graduation ceremonies or the arcane rituals and rites of passage they must go through before receiving their degrees. The robes, tassels, and silly hats that denote membership of the Noble Order Of the Ivory Tower look incongruous alongside the myth created by modern academics that their institutions are centres of secular learning where science, logic, reason and order rule unchallenged. The clothes and ceremonies are relics from the rituals of ancient priestly communities.
On a superficial level western society is dividing culturally between traditionalist theists and progressive atheists, but if you look closely and with a critical eye Evangelical Christians and devotees of the Cult of Science have many things in common. The claim that God must certainly exist is equally untenable as the claim that He must certainly not, and both sides cling to their irrational dogma with equal ferocity while demonizing their opposition and lavishing their followers with self-righteous moralizing.
The real struggle however, the one that will determine the future course of the western nations, is not between atheists and theists but between the realists who accept that we are frail creatures whose lives are governed by pure chance to a much greater extant than we would wish and those who believe to sacrifice their individuality and freedom to act of their own volition for an illusory sense of certainty. This point is spelled out very clearly in articles like The Truth Wears Off (The New Yorker) or Placebos workeven without deception (Medical Daily).
The first relates the ominous failings of the scientific method as this short extract shows:
As proof that well established drugs are fully effective slips through our fingers the second article details the extent to which sugar pills -placebos which are not medically active but are prescribed to mollify concerned patiens who don't want to hear there is no effective medicine for their ailment - often outperform prescription drugs even when people know they are only taking a sugar pill.
... But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. Its as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesnt yet have an official name, but its occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. In the field of medicine, the phenomenon seems extremely widespread, affecting not only antipsychotics but also therapies ranging from cardiac stents to Vitamin E and antidepressants: Davis has a forthcoming analysis demonstrating that the efficacy of antidepressants has gone down as much as threefold in recent decades.
For many scientists, the effect is especially troubling because of what it exposes about the scientific process. If replication is what separates the rigor of science from the squishiness of pseudoscience, where do we put all these rigorously validated findings that can no longer be proved? Which results should we believe? Francis Bacon, the early-modern philosopher and pioneer of the scientific method, once declared that experiments were essential, because they allowed us to put nature to the question. But it appears that nature often gives us different answers.
Karl Marx called religion opiate of the masses. He was right but not because for many centuries a political elite sought to keep the lower orders docile, but simply because human beings were more than willing to voluntarily exchange freedom for an instubstantial apparition of certainty in order to escape the burden of moral responsibility. Given this precedent, we should hardly be surprised that so many today are willing to exchange political liberty for safety, whether it be safety from terrorist attack or from financial ruin.
Its crucial for any libertarian, and I use that work reluctantly and only because the word liberal has been hijacked and tainted by the dark forces of socialist authoritarianism, to understand the extent to which people seek to get rid of their own free-will by abdicating it to political or religious leaders or academic 'experts' . The rhetoric of liberty and freedom is so widespread it has been reduced to the level of cliche and aphorism. Political campaigners talk of fairness and rights in such hackneyed and meaningless ways we too frequently take it for granted that the real discussion is only about how to achieve these ends. Instead we should consider how basic fredoms, to choose what we eat and drink, what medication we accept and what deviations from the norms of society we are prepared to tolerate are being eroded.
In reality many people need to be convinced that political and moral liberty is something worth fighting for George Orwell sounded the alarm in his novels 1984 and Animal Farm. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World took a different angle and Anthiny Burgess' A Clockwork Orange in the way it clever first makes us hate the central character Alex and his Droogs but then feel sympathy for Alex as he is identified as the intelligent one, the thinker who will lead others to rebel against conformity.